It’s not a big secret that I doubt the success of the electric car, or of any vehicle that will require me to find a motel every 100 miles, where I wait half a day until my car is fueled up – if I can park it in front of my window, and if they don’t mind the extension cord to the car. Despite my huge anti-EV bias, I fell in love with an EV. Never since the mid-sixties, when Baerbel K. lured a still underage BS on the cramped back seat of her Volkswagen Bug, did I have so much fun in a car. I want the thing, and I want it bad, more than I ever wanted Baerbel.
The thing is the Toyota i-ROAD, a tiny two-seater on three wheels, and I drove it. The engineers at Toyota have a better name for it. Internally, they call it the “lean-machine.” Roofed scooters are quite popular in Japan (especially as a pizza delivery vehicle). Carmakers are trying to popularize them with wider target groups. Nissan has the New Mobility Concept. Toyota has the COMS, occasionally dressed-op as the INSECT. Despite their tandem seating arrangements, these vehicles have a relatively wide stance. Build them narrower, and they could topple in turns.
Enter the lean-machine. Both front wheels of the i-ROAD can be moved up or down via an on-board computer, thereby inducing lean. The computer uses steering angle, vehicle speed, and an electronic gyroscope as inputs.
The i-ROAD quite natural leans into very tight turns. Despite, or maybe because of the advanced gadgetry, the i-ROAD demands little or no familiarization. After a few turns, driver and lean-machine become one. Maneuvering the I-ROAD through a slalom course feels like true slalom on skis, the machine crouches in the turn, and it stretches when going into the straightaway.
The i-ROAD takes as little parking space as a full size motorcycle. In a pinch, four can be fitted into a Japanese parking spot. With a range of 30 miles, the vehicle clearly is destined for the city. The lithium-ion battery recharges in three hours. Sure, the machine checks all the green and sustainable boxes. But it provides something that has become rare on wheels: It is a huge fun to drive.
“This could be a big success in Europe,” said Christian Wuest, scIence editor of Germany’s Spiegel magazine, who tried the i-ROAD before me, and who dismounted with a huge grin on his face. Yet, it is not sure whether the lean-machine will go commercial at all. The vehicle is still a concept, Wuest and I drove the vehicles that had been shown at this year’s Geneva Auto Salon. A few more will be built, to be used in a field test in Japan and France. After that, the decision will be made whether the i-ROAD will go into series.
I hope it will be built. The “driveway” of our new old Japanese house in Toyo is barely five feet wide, too tight a squeeze even for a kei car. The “street” outside is not a lot wider. Lean-machine, I am waiting for you.